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European Union Law: EU Court System

An introductory guide to the law of the European Union

EU Court System Resources

Here are some of the Law Library's resources on the EU Court System. Search the UIUC catalog for additional resources.

Overview of the EU Court System

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the collective name for the judicial branch of the EU.  Its purpose, in cooperation with the national courts and tribunals of the Member States, is to ensure the uniform interpretation and application of EU law. 

The CJEU consists of three distinct judicial entities, the highest of which is the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which constitutes the EU’s final court of appeal.  Beneath the ECJ are two subordinate courts, the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal.  Each court is described in greater detail below.

Bear in mind that EU courts have limited jurisdiction.  Most cases that apply EU law are adjudicated by the national courts of the Member States.  When novel questions of interpretation arise with respect to EU law, EU courts may be asked to intervene in cases where they otherwise lack jurisdiction.

The European Court of Justice

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is the highest tribunal in the EU court system and the court of final appeal on all matters of EU law.  It does not adjudicate claims arising under the national laws of the Member States, except to the extent that those laws conflict with EU law. 

Composition  The ECJ consists of 28 judges, one from each of the Member States.  Judges are appointed by the common consent of the governments of the Member States and serve for a term of six years, which may be renewed.  The ECJ can sit as a full court, as a Grand Chamber of 13 judges, or in smaller chambers of three to five judges.  In most instances, the ECJ sits in smaller chambers.  Larger chambers are reserved for special types of cases, such as when a Member State is a party to the litigation. 

Advocates-General  The judges of the ECJ are assisted by eight Advocates-General who prepare advisory opinions with respect to cases that raise novel points of law.  The opinions of the Advocates-General are not binding on the ECJ, but they are often influential. 

Jurisdiction The ECJ hears the following types of cases:

  • References for Preliminary Rulings made by national courts seeking clarification on points of EU law. 
  • Actions for Failure to Fulfill an Obligation taken by the Commission or a Member State against another Member State for failing to live up to its obligations under EU law.  For example, the Commission could initiate a proceeding against a Member State for failing to enact legislation implementing a directive.
  • Actions for Annulment seeking to invalidate a regulation, directive or decision made by the EU.  If the action is brought by a Member State or an EU institution, the ECJ has original jurisdiction.  If the action is brought by a private party, it is heard by the General Court, subject to appeal to the ECJ.
  • Actions for Failure to Act brought against an EU institution.  If the action is initiated by a Member State or another EU institution, the ECJ has original jurisdiction.  If the action is initiated by a private party, it is heard by the General Court, subject to appeal to the ECJ.
  • Appeals on points of law from decisions made by the General Court.
  • Reviews of decisions made by the Civil Service Tribunal that have been appealed to the General Court, but only in exceptional circumstances.

The General Court

The General Court, formerly known as the Court of First Instance, is the EU's trial court of general jurisdiction. 

Composition  Like the ECJ, the General Court consists of 28 judges, one from each of the Member States.  Judges of the General Court also are appointed by the common consent of the governments of the Member States and serve for six-year, renewable terms.  Like the ECJ, the General Court usually sits in small chambers of three to five judges, but can sit as a full court, or as a Grand Chamber of 13 judges, in special types of cases. 

Jurisdiction The General Court hears the following types of cases:

  • Direct Actions brought by private parties against an agent or institution of the EU or with respect to a legal act taken by the EU that directly affects the private party.  For example, a corporation that was assessed a fine pursuant to a decision by the European Commission could bring a direct action to have the decision annulled.
  • Actions Against the Commission initiated by one or more of the Member States. 
  • Actions Seeking Compensation for Damages directly caused by an EU institution or staff member.
  • Actions Arising from Contracts Made by the EU when jurisdiction is expressly given to the General Court under the terms of the contract.
  • Actions Related to EU Trademarks.
  • Appeals of decisions made by the Civil Service Tribunal.

The Civil Service Tribunal

The Civil Service Tribunal was established in 2005 to resolve disputes between the EU and members of its civil service.  The Tribunal consists of seven judges appointed by the common consent of the EU Council.  The Tribunal ordinarily sits in panels of three judges, but may sit in larger or smaller panels, according to its rules of procedure.  Decisions of the Civil Service Tribunal may be appealed to the General Court on points of law and may, in exceptional cases, be subject to review by the ECJ.

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